Abbott Claim: A Fine Balance

Posted on May 4, 2022


Willamette Valley winery

A perfect pairing. [Source: Abbott Claim]

While it’s becoming somewhat common to see a Burgundian House establish a wine project in Oregon, one of the State’s newest winery owners is surprising initially, until you dig a little deeper. Beck Family Estates chose the Willamette Valley to launch Abbott Claim, its first winery outside of South Africa. Their reputation for a commitment to sustainability coupled with their choice of Alban Debeaulieu as their winemaker is already proving to be a wine match made in heaven.

The construction of Abbott Claim winery was completed in 2020 and sits on a property at the base of a vineyard with the same name.

Willamette Valley wine

Abbott Claim Vineyard [source: Abbott Claim]

That name is derived from an old land claim that dates back to 1855. The property encompasses 175 acres in total with 39 acres planted to vine. 35 of those acres are used for their Pinot Noir and the balance is planted to young Chardonnay vines that aren’t producing yet.

The vineyard is part of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA (American Viticultural Area) sitting on an east/west ridge that peaks at 500ft elevation and is south-facing. While the winery is new, the vineyard is not, having first been planted in 2001 by none other than Ken Wright its previous owner.

We arrived at the winery to meet with Alban on a rainy spring day, but even in the wet weather its classic Pacific northwest design still showcases a natural elegance that is a perfect fit for the surrounding environment. The building was purposely built by local architects to be both functional and to have as little impact as possible, both during construction and with the finished product.

Willamette valley winery

The American stainless steel fermenters at the winery.

Greeting us with a glass of sparkling wine from Lytle Barnett (based in Carlton, OR), Alban showed us the Crush Pad and toured us through the winery. French oak fermenters, American stainless steel tanks and concrete vessels line the walls of this facility built for a 10,000-case production (they’re currently producing approximately 2,000 cases).

Its most impressive feature is a cave built into the underground in the shape of a 180-degree curve filled with barrels ageing wine.

Willamette Valley wine

Tasting at Abbott Claim [Source: Abbott Claim]

In the middle of the curve there is a wine library with light pouring in through a skylight. The top of its oculus comes out just shy of 2 feet above the earth giving you a true sense of how underground you are when standing in the cave.

Directly opposite the room is a table set up with candles and wine glasses providing a unique and intimate ambiance that is a truly impressive guest experience.

willamette valley winery

The wine library.

[*Because they want to preserve the experience for each visitor, we were politely asked to refrain from video footage—but we can absolutely attest that this is a place you’ll definitely want to see for yourself!].

Born in France and trained in Burgundy, Alban’s CV is impressive and includes working at several notable wineries in Oregon such as Domaine Drouhin, White Rose Estate, and Chapter 24.

We ask Alban about the soil and he smiles instantly telling us, “That is the best place to start the conversation.” And what a conversation it was. Alban’s passion for the land he works with oozes out of him and we benefitted from almost 2 hours of riveting wine talk with one of the region’s new generation of extremely talented winemakers.

willamette valley winemaker

Alban Debeaulieu.

“This property sits exclusively on ancient marine sediment so we’re talking about old sedimentary soils that were on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for some 200 million years and then uplifted on the continental plate some 50-60 million years ago. These are probably the oldest vineyard soils in the valley with the exception of some very old volcanic soil that you might find in the coast range. Here we have very sandy soils, very shallow sandstone and very little clay. The sandstone has very little capacity for water retention, so it ends up having very poor soils with very low nutrients and poor microbiology.”

Willamette Valley wineries

Part of the Abbott Claim property.

Because they dry farm instead of irrigating, it’s important for them to have a purist approach in the vineyard, which involves a lot more work to ensure the soil is balanced and healthy. They’ve been organic since he started at Abbott Claim in 2017 and have implemented a biodynamic compost program. The are also growing a full grass cover to encourage diversity and assist with rebuilding the soil. “We shouldn’t be providing supplement through fertilization on the canopy or on the ground, the microclimate should be enough. Always having to supplement the vine with something that doesn’t naturally exist is problematic if we want to do something that makes sense and is sustainable.”

Willamette Valley Wine

Abbott Claim Pinot Noirs.

All of the Pinot Noir they produce is from the Abbott Claim estate vineyard. The fruit tends to have low yields consisting of small berries with thicker skins. The fruit’s high skin to juice ratio is due to a combination of it being a naturally warmer part of the Willamette Valley coupled with dry farming.

Expressing the terroir in its truest form is Alban’s ultimate goal, “I’m not trying to make a wine that is a certain style, I’m trying to make something that shows what the vineyard is. But it’s walking a fine line between perfectly transparent hands-off terroir expression within reasonable boundaries of a wine that should be spoilage-free, in balance, ageable, and enjoyable—those are my parameters that I enforce on the terroir.”

He accomplishes that fine balance through a low intervention approach that is gentle and mindful of the raw material in its natural state. He uses all native fermentations (‘I don’t even own a bag of yeast’), natural malolactic fermentation, delicate extractions and miniscule sulfur additions.

What draws him to winemaking and is a shared philosophy between him and owner Antony Beck, is that the most fundamental part of the entire winemaking process is the piece of land that they have that no one else does. “The land is what really makes our wine like nothing else. Anyone could just come and have a stylistic pre-conceived idea of what they want the wine to taste like but then what’s it all for? To me that has little value because if I get replaced or leave, someone else comes along and the wines would be completely different.”

Willamette valley winery

Barrels in the underground cave.

Alban believes that new world terroir can translate well and make wines that have a unique character of place. But he cautions that too often the finished product is a result of wine making ideas based on the taste of the people who make them as opposed to being representations of where they grow.

“I’m French and I was trained in Burgundy so for me the lens through which I look at wine demands this greater natural process that is bigger than I am and it’s exciting. Terroir is the most fundamental parameter that there is to this process so that’s what must be showcased.”

Alban leaves us with the idea that he and owner Antony Beck want to do something that is relevant today that could have been relevant 50 years ago and hopefully will be relevant 50 years from now. From what we saw, heard and tasted; we have no doubt that they are well on their way to achieving that goal.

 

Tasting Notes

2018 Abbott Claim Vineyard Pinot Noir

In an interesting break from the norm, Alban started our tasting with the reds and then moved on to the whites.

Willamette Valley chardonnay

2018 Pinot Noir

He feels the palate gets refreshed by the whites and is what is needed after tasting the reds. A first for us but it definitely has some merit. The Abbott Claim Vineyard Pinot is made from grapes throughout the vineyard and therefore gives the truest expression of the entire site. What a delicious expression this is! The deep red colour lets you know you are in for a serious wine, one that is likely to have impact. And while it definitely has impact, it is allied with an exquisite finesse that shows intensity of flavour rather than brute strength. The flavour profile is dominated by cherry notes with hints of raspberry bringing in complexity. The finish is long and infused with savoury notes and hints of cracked pepper. The medium tannin and medium acid marry with the fruit to create a soft and round mouthfeel that is silky and pleasure driven.

Excellent+ (USD$75 at the winery)

2018 Abbott Claim Vineyard Due North Pinot Noir

At the top of the hill that is the Abbott Claim Vineyard is a little plot planted to heritage Pommard clones that faces due north and are surrounded by the local forest on three sides.

Willamette Valley wine

2018 Due North Pinot Noir

The very pretty floral notes show the cool characteristics of this site along with the notes of earth, forest floor and a hint of mushroom. On the back end we pick up some baking spice which creates an intriguing counterpoint to the earthy characteristics. Supremely elegant, many will be tempted to describe this wine as “Burgundian”. But it is not. This is a perfect expression a cooler site in the Willamette Valley and is as terroir-driven as any wine. The hint of flowers that infuses the aromas is quite beguiling and shifts and changes as the wine opens up. This will likely have a long life of increased development in front of it.

Excellent+ (Allocation list only)

2018 Abbott Claim Vineyard Orientate Pinot Noir

Willamette Valley Wine

2018 Orientate Pinot Noir

The alliance of power to finesse could not be any greater than in this 2018 Orientate. A barrel selection from the estate vineyard, the flavours and aromas on this wine are very intense. A powerful explosion of strawberry and raspberry with floral undertones immediately greet your nose well above the glass. These carry on to the palate where after a bit of swirling darker blueberry and black cherry tones join the chorus. Yet, with all of this intensity, there is no feeling of heaviness; in fact we would say the wine is medium to medium+ in body with medium tannin. It is quite astonishing to experience such a light ethereal mouthfeel while at the same time tasting with such intensity. This wine has exactly that nature that pinot-lovers seek, that ineffable something that is so hard to put into words but gives such enormous satisfaction on those few instances when one actually encounters it.

Extraordinary (Allocation List Only)

2018 Willamette Valley Chardonnay

Willamette Valley wine

2018 Chardonnay

Made from purchased fruit in grown Eola-Amity Hills and mostly from the renowned 7 Springs Vineyard, this Chardonnay emphasizes freshness while at the same time providing very good texture. Flavours of green apple, pear and citrus combine with mineral notes and hints of lemon drop. A streak of acidity matches off against the plumpness characteristic of Chardonnay and create precise balance. The mineral-infused finish goes on and on.

Excellent  (USD$ 75 at the winery)

 

2019 Willamette Valley Chardonnay

The differences between the two vintages are subtle. This 2019 comes across as even more intense with a slightly cooler, minerally character which takes up the level of focus here a bit. Whereas 2018 might be more about texture, 2019 might be more about freshness. But keep in mind, these differences are subtle only. “Horses for courses” as the saying goes, it will depend on your own palate as to which vintage you might prefer, but rest assured, either of these deserves a place in your cellar!

Excellent+ (USD$75 at the winery)

2019 X Omni Chardonnay

Willamette Valley Wine

2019 X Omni Chardonnay

Abbott Claim gets fruit each year from the same 25 rows at the esteemed X Omni Vineyard at the southern end of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. The green apple notes have the dials turned up on this wine. These notes are accompanied by a lovely minerality and a slightly briny tone that we did not pick up in the Willamette Chardonnay. The acids are high, a characteristic of the vineyard, and are well-matched to the deep texture of this wine. So refreshing with plenty to offer those looking for body, this wine combines intensity with precise balance. The complexity that is likely to develop with a few more years in bottle is likely to make this wine extraordinary.

Excellent/Extraordinary (Allocation List Only)

 

Willamette Valley wine

The tasting lineup at Abbott Claim.

Abbott Claim

11011 NE Bayliss Rd

Carlton, OR 97111

T: (503) 687-3839

E: Taste@abbottclaim.com

*Tour & tasting by appointment only*

6 Comments

  1. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    Love Alban’s discussion of terroir and soil… wine that shows what the vineyard is. Small producer alert indeed!

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    • His passion was infectious. Loved the conversation and adored the wines!

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    • A new discovery we’re really excited about. Cannot recommend their wines enough!

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    • You would love these wines and we can’t wait to introduce you to them directly!

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